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Today’s Gospel from St. Matthew confront the reality that both Christ’s mission and our own discipleship involves suffering.

In the passage in Matthew that immediately precedes today’s Gospel, Peter is quick to answer Jesus’ question, “who do you say that I am,” with the reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” But he follows up that answer in today’s Gospel by rebuking Jesus’ revelation that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes.”

Not only does Jesus respond harshly to Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ own suffering, but he adds that it is not only he who must suffer: Whoever wishes to come after [Him] must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” For only those who lose their lives for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel will save their lives.

One can only imagine the disciples’ reaction. It was one thing to follow Jesus while he went around healing and feeding people, calming the seas and preaching that the mighty would fall and the poor be lifted up. But taking up the cross and suffering must have sounded like quite another thing.

Yet, the invitation to the cross is one intended for all of us.

What it means to take up the cross is often misunderstood. We’ve all heard people respond to some physical or mental suffering by saying, “that’s my cross….that’s just the cross I have to bear.” Perhaps worse, battered women were told for years to “bear the cross” of the physical and emotional abuse of their spouses.

There is nothing Christian in being subject to spousal or child abuse. Christ’s words were never intended to invite women and children to endure abuse from their batterers. And there is nothing Christian about the various forms of physical and mental suffering that exist in the world today, whether they be caused by another person, a natural disaster or anything else.

When we pay attention to the entirety of Jesus’ message, which links denying oneself and taking up the cross, we get a more accurate understanding of what Jesus was trying to convey to his listeners. The cross of which Jesus speaks is the cost of discipleship, the difficult and sometimes painful consequences that flow from following Christ, from putting Christ first.

The cost of discipleship can sometimes be high. For myself, I look at the plaque in my workspace at home that reads, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” and I pray for the grace and strength to follow His example.

Zealot

One of the advantages of moving to St. Paul is the ability to get to the Law School via the shuttle between the University of St. Thomas’ two campuses rather than driving to school. And the advantage of that is that I get to read during my commute.

The extra reading time this week allowed me to finish Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. The book, which reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list, has generated a lot of heat in many quarters and, after hearing and reading about it so often, I was interested in reading it.

I am not a Biblical scholar and so I do not have the expertise to independently assess the quality of Aslan’s scholarship. My reading of those who do have expertise suggests that the book does not make any claims that have not been made before and many question the quality of the author’s research and claims. According to one professor of New Testament, “Aslan seems to have bought into an outdated model of Christian development.” According to another, the book presents “a historically reconstructed Jesus, not the Jesus that appears on the pages of Scripture.” Another suggests Alsan offer a “superficial caricature” of Jesus. (Many other things have been written by people who do not seem to have read the book; I ignore those for obvious reasons.)

All of that may be true, but I found the book an interesting and provocative read. It offers some alternative readings of familiar Gospel passages (such as Jesus’ instruction to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s) that are worth sitting with. And, while much of what is there may not be new, the book is written in an accessible manner that anyone can read. Many people accept uncritically things they learned as a child about their faith. Everyone, in my view, benefits from thinking critically about their faith and if reading this book encourages Christians to do so, that is a good, not a bad thing.

I also agree with an early New York Times review of the book that one of the book’s strengths is its picture of first-century Palestine. Many Christians have very little knowledge of the religious, economic and political environment into which Jesus was born and preached. Understanding the relationship between Rome and the Jewish upper class, as well as the role of the Temple and the power of those who controlled it, is a helpful aid in reading the Gospels.

Among criticisms of the book that I find disturbing is the feeling among some conservatives that it is somehow offensive for a Muslim scholar to write a book about Jesus. Why that is more controversial than a Christian scholar’s writing a book about Islam or Muhammad is baffling to me.

While it would be a mistake to read this book uncritically, accepting the truth of all Aslan suggests, I do think it is a worthwhile read – both in its discussion of Jesus’ life and in its treatment of the early Church after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

What If

I had a frustrating couple of days. In an attempt to fix a problem I had been having since getting my new computer at the law school (we lease computers and they are replaced every three years), IT managed to accidentally eliminate all of my e-mail archive folders. Since I use those folders like a file cabinet, they are not really “archives;” rather, many of the thousands of messages and attachments stored there contain material I currently need.

Fortunately, by the middle of the day yesterday, my files were restored, so my only loss was the loss of almost two days of working time at my computer while IT sought to solve the problem. But my anxiety ran high, fueled by various other, albeit smaller, things that were not going smoothly.

At one point yesterday, while Kelly was working on my computer, I was standing outside of my office looking at something I had taped to my door. An excerpt from Bandon Bays book Freedom Is, it was exactly what I needed to read. Here it is:

What if you realized that everything that is taking place is happening for a reason and a purpose that you can’t fully understand yet?…What if you were to fully, completely, and utterly just accept what’s here?…

What if it is entirely the will of grace and is out of your hands?…What if there is nothing you can do, should do or ought to do to fix it?…What if you finally felt what it feels like to completely and totally relax and accept that what is here is what is meant to be, in this moment?…

What if, in absolutely accepting, you chose now to stop struggling…give up…relax…just relax…let go?…

What if, as you let go, you felt yourself deeply releasing, falling, opening, relaxing into a spacious embrace of infinite presence?…What if this presence was surrounding you, suffusing you, pulling you ever deeper…opening…relaxing… trusting…trusting…trusting?…

How would it feel to rest in an ocean of trust…just being…effortless being?…

What if you gave up the need to figure it out, find the answers, fix it, change it, make it right? What if you just accepted totally that what is here is what is here?…

Reading those words helped me to breathe a little easier, reminding me that this was what was. I could do nothing to change the situation. All I could do was stop struggling and let go.

The Model of Monica

Catholic theologian Louis Bouyer wrote that “[m]an, the male, never finds himself except by a process of discovery blemished by narcissism, and, except by and in women, he never meets the world in an encounter which is real communion, rather than a simple confrontation. The world is never real for the man except by symbioses with women.”

Bouyer may overstate his case, but it is not difficult to find examples of women who were clearly central to the spiritual lives and growth of men, some of which men are regarded as among our most revered saints. When one thinks of St. Francis, St. Claire comes immediately to mind. The same is true of St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marrilac and of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Availa.

St. Augustine was enormously influenced by his mother, St. Monica, whose memorial the Catholic Church celebrates today. Although Monica was “neither a monk nor a scholar,” Augustine himself recognized that she “was more advanced in her Christian life than he.”

Monica served as a model for her son. She is also a model for all of us when dealing with people who do not live up to our expectations. It was many years before her pagan husband converted to Christianity and also many years before Augustine gave up his wayward life for God. Through that time, she persevered with love and integrity, with prayer and support.

St. Monica, pray for us.

Untying the Knots

I just finished reading Pope Francis: Untying the Knots, by Paul Vallely, which was recommended (and lent) to me by my friend Fr. Dan Griffith.

The title of the book comes from a Baroque painting Fr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio came across many years ago in a church in Germany, titled Mary Untier of Knots. It was a painting he prayed in front of many time.

Vallely’s book, based on many meetings with those who have known Pope Francis over the many years of his life, is well-worth reading. It is a book of transformation, of conversion. It shows the growth of a young man of great pride to one of openness and humility, the transformation from an authoritarian to a seeker of collegiality, a movement from almost reactionary to radical, and the development of a deep commitment to the poor.

One of the things Vallely emphasizes in talking about the change in Pope Francis is the importance of prayer in his life. He writes

For the change in Jorge Mario Bergoglio may not have been triggered by an event so much as a process. Bergoglio’s key decisions are all made during his long sessions of daily prayer. It is difficult to overstate the importance of prayer in his life, says his former close aide Guillermo Marco: “He liked to wake at 4:30a.m. to 5a.m. every morning to pray. He makes decisions while he prays.” Prayer, Bergoglio has said, “should be an experience of giving way, of surrendering, where our entire being enters in to the presence of God.”…In Buenos Aires he often prayed for two hours before the start of his day.

I confess that the early Bergoglio was not a man I found very attractive. Perhaps he was simply put in too high a position too early, but there is no denying he did not handle his job as Provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina. And while not all the facts are clear about (to use a chapter title) “What Really Happened in the Dirty War” in Argentina, it seems clear the way he handled the situation withe the Jesuits Yorio and Jalics contributed to their arrest and torture. (That is not to take away from the fact that it appears he acted with “considerable courage over the six years which followed as the Dirty War.”)

I’m guessing the early Bergoglio is also not a man Pope Francis finds all that attractive. He said in one interview

I don’t want to mislead anyone – the truth is that I’m a sinner who God in His mercy has chosen to love in a privileged manner. From a young age, life pushed me into leadership roles – as soon as I was ordained as a priest, I was designated as the master of novices, and two and a half years later, leader of the province – and I had to learn from my errors along the way, because to tell you the truth, I made hundreds of errors. Errors and sins. It would be wrong for me to say that these days I ask forgiveness for the sins and offenses I might have committed. Today I ask forgiveness for the sins and offenses I did indeed commit.

The question is not whether we have sinned; we are all sinners. Rather, the question is whether we can be open to the grace of God, open to conversion and transformation. Clearly the man who is now Pope Francis was.

Pope Francis has his fans and his detractors. Both would benefit from leaning more about what made the man who he is today. This book is a good way of doing that.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say I am.” And then he asks them what my friend Fr. Dan Griffith suggested in his homily this morning is the most important question we can ask ourselves: “Who do you say I am.”

Peter answers, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”

Here is what Pope Francis said in his Angeles address today about Peter’s reply and Jesus’ reaction thereto:

This Sunday’s Gospel (Mt. 16, 13-20) is the famous passage, which is central in St. Matthew’s account. Simon, in the name of the Twelve, professes his faith in Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus calls Simon “blessed” for this faith, recognizing in him a special gift from the Father, and he says to him: “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church.”

Let us pause for a moment on this point, on the fact that Jesus attributes this new name to Simon: “Peter”, who in Jesus’ language is pronounced “Kefa”, a word that means “rock”. In the Bible, this name, this word “rock” is referred to God. Jesus attributes it to Simon not for his quality or for his human merits, but for his genuine and firm faith, which comes from above.

Jesus feels a great joy in His heart, because He recognizes in Simon the hand of the Father, the action of the Holy Spirit. He recognizes that God the Father has given to Simon a “trustworthy” faith, in which He, Jesus, can build his Church, that is, His community. That is, all of us, all of us. Jesus has in mind to give life to “His” Church, a people no longer founded on ancestry but rather on faith, namely a relationship with Himself, a relationship of love and of trust. Our relationship with Jesus builds the Church. And so to start his Church, Jesus needs to find in the disciples a solid faith, “trustworthy.” It is this that He must verify at this point of His journey. And that is why He asks the question.

The Lord has in mind the image of constructing, the image of the community as an edifice. That is why, when he hears Simon’s sincere profession of faith, he calls him “rock”, the intention of building his Church upon this faith is manifested.

Brothers and sisters, that which has occurred in a unique way to Saint Peter, also takes place in every Christian that develops a sincere faith in Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God. Today’s Gospel challenges each and every one of us. How is your faith? Each one must answer in their heart. How is your faith? What does the Lord find in our hearts? A steadfast heart like a rock or a sand-like heart, that is, doubtful, wary, incredulous? It would do us well today to think about this.

If the Lord finds in our hearts a faith, I do not say perfect, but sincere, genuine, then He also sees in us the living stones with which he can build his community. Of this community, the fundamental rock is Christ, the only cornerstone. On his part, Peter is a rock, as a visible foundation of the unity of the Church; but each baptized person is called to offer to Jesus their own faith, poor but sincere, so that He can continue to build his Church, today, in every part of the world.

Even today, “the people” believe Jesus to be a great prophet, a master of wisdom, a model of justice…And today Jesus asks his disciples, that is us, all of us: “But you, who do you say that I am?” What will we respond? Let us think about this. But above all let us pray to God the Father, through the intercession of the Virgin Mary; let us pray that He may give us the grace to respond, with a sincere heart: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

This is a confession of faith, this is the Creed. Let us all repeat this three times together: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

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